In Memory of Karen Spector

Karen Rae Spector
April 11, 1965 – June 15, 1987

In Memory of Karen Spector

The following has been established through the University of Wisconsin Foundation in memory of Karen Spector:


Karen Spector was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on a rainy Sunday morning. Her parents, Dianne and Jerry Spector welcomed a little girl with dark straight hair to join her brother, Brian, aged two. When Karen and Brian were 6 and 8, a baby sister, named Cindy, rounded out the family. The children and their cat, Meow (and later, Tiger), grew up in the suburb of Fox Point.

As a child, Karen played with stuffed animals rather than dolls and rarely sat still long enough to listen to stories or watch TV. Instead, she always wanted to be busy. She excelled in what we called “small motor skills,” mastering puzzles and crafts like knitting. Karen loved to help in the kitchen and by the time she was a teenager, she had surpassed her mother’s baking skills. Apple cake was her father’s favorite, and became Karen’s signature surprise treat for him.

At the Fox Point pool, Karen became an avid swimmer. She also loved to snow ski. In college, she started running to keep in shape. Throughout her years at Nicolet High School, she participated in weekend ski clubs, played on the varsity soccer team, and was active in the B’nai Brith Youth Organization for Jewish teens. She studied Hebrew, and at age 13, Karen became a Bat Mitzvah. At age 16 she was confirmed – both at Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee.

Long before sprouts became a fashionable food, Karen had introduced her family to healthy eating. She always took good care of herself. Dark eyes, clear olive skin, and dark brown, thick and shiny hair, Karen was beautiful. People always asked her about her looks. Was she Hispanic, Italian, Greek, a Sabra from Israel? Karen was Jewish but her grandparents had come from Russia and Romania. Karen was lovely but she didn’t know it. That was one of the most beautiful things about her.

One of her mother’s favorite memories of Karen was that when they shopped together, they could stand on opposite sides of a rounder and independently hold up a piece of clothing saying, “Isn’t this cute?” and find that they were holding the exact same item. Karen’s father loved that she was always the one who lingered at the table after dinner to chat. How can a few select memories begin to tell of a person’s life?

In Madison, Karen lived in Sellery Hall her first year. For the next three years, she lived in houses and honed her homemaking skills. Her last group of housemates enjoyed her newfound interest in bread baking. For friends celebrating birthdays, she would typically bake a special cake. When Karen walked down the street in Madison, it seemed as though she knew everyone. She greeted so many people with her incredibly warm smile. One friend asked if, when she smiled, did she have to show all of her teeth.

After two years of liberal arts classes, Karen struggled to define her major. Junior year was looming and she needed to declare an area of interest. She studied every course offering and interviewed various departments, and when Karen discovered Nutrition (dietetics) within the School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, she called home excited because she had found her niche. This field was the ultimate blend of her long-standing interests in good food and healthy living.

After getting accepted into the Coordinated Program in Dietetics, she interned at Methodist Hospital and became particularly interested in WIC – Women, Infants, and Children – a government assistance program helping low-income women and their families’ health needs. Classmates wrote of her that everything she did included an extra measure of creativity. Though school had always been challenging for her, she worked hard to grasp difficult studies, never gave up, and when she was down, called home for pep talks of encouragement.

Paul Ginsberg, then Dean of Students, and Karen became friends after he had counseled her. He said she was very demanding of her friends. To be Karen’s friend, you had to be honest and as dependable as the sunrise. Paul understood her expectations and how people could sometimes disappoint her. He wrote, “I was so proud of her. She grew and matured with the beauty and vitality of a vibrant mountain flower. There were indeed so many mountains that Karen was determined to climb — not always as carefully as I would have liked. But when she succeeded, she would come back to see me — so proud of herself. And then we would always hug each other — and the world was at peace.”

More than anything, Karen loved to travel. During her last year of high school, she attended a two-month study program called High School in Israel and dreamed of returning there with her parents to show them the country she had come to love. During her four years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, most every vacation led to a travel adventure – from spring break in Florida to Mardi Gras in New Orleans to the ski slopes of Colorado or a summer job at an Italian Deli in New York City. Karen was taking a class in the Italian language in Madison and combined with her looks, her bosses spent that summer trying to find her “a nice Italian boy.”

In the summer after her fourth year of college and before her final year in school, an invitation to go to Alaska was a journey too tempting to let pass. June 9, 1987, she found a job as a cook on a three- crew salmon fishing boat, hired in part because it was considered good luck to have a pretty woman on board a fishing boat.

On June 15, 1987, in a Pacific Ocean storm with forty-foot waves, the 25-foot boat cracked in half. For three days, her family prayed and wanted to believe that Karen was on an island, stir-frying the local vegetation. The coast guard searched over 26,000 square miles in 400-foot waters for three days. Karen and another crewmember had made their way to a lifeboat but could not survive the cold waters and died of hypothermia. They were discovered on an island. The third crewmember was presumed lost. Karen was returned home and laid to rest.

In Jewish tradition, charitable contributions are typically made in a person’s memory. When the family understood that Karen had, in fact, died, they sought to guide those gifts towards a place that would have been meaningful to her. With the help of the University of Wisconsin Foundation, the family established the Karen Spector Memorial Scholarship Fund with the dollars that were contributed in her memory. In keeping with Karen’s essence, they wanted to recognize a student who shines, not necessarily because of top grades but because of creativity, tenacity, warmth, and commitment to other people. Varied interests and extra curricular activities are viewed as attributes that make a well-rounded individual and those are how Karen is remembered.

This history was written the week of August 17, 1999, twelve years after Karen’s death. For many years, it was too painful to write this story. We can only hope that no one who reads this will ever know the anguish of losing a child. May the wonderful people who receive a gift in Karen’s memory live long and fruitful lives, contribute to their communities, and be a joy to the families that love them.

Someone recently wrote, “Taking risks is not only the way a person can die, but it is the best way a person can grow. At the end of our lives, whether they are terribly too short or satisfyingly full of years, the things we regret are not usually what we did, but what we did not do because we were afraid to try.”

Karen was one to go and do, not wait and watch. She was involved in an accident and died far too young. But she died from having lived.

–Written by Dianne Spector

To make a donation:

To make a gift in memory of Karen to the Karen Spector Reading Room or Scholarship fund, send your gift to the address below. Please indicate the correct Fund No. in the correspondence;

Reading Room: Fund No.12042876
Scholarship Fund: Fund No.12043151

UW Foundation – Karen Spector Reading Room
U.S. Bank Lockbox
P.O. Box 78807
Milwaukee, WI 53278-0807

Alternatively, you may make a gift online with through the UW Foundation page.

For more information, contact:

Richard Eisenstein
(608) 262-5830